In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Performativity

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Texts
  • Reviews
  • Critiques of Performativity/Performatives
  • Performative Ethnography
  • Subjectivity
  • Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Performance and Performativity
  • Ritual
  • Economic Performativity
  • Politics and the Power of Performativity
  • Performativity in Institutional Settings
  • Semiotics and/of Performativity
  • Performativity of Documents and Writing
  • Performing Culture

Anthropology Performativity
Jillian R. Cavanaugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0114


Performativity is the power of language to effect change in the world: language does not simply describe the world but may instead (or also) function as a form of social action. The concept of performative language was first described by the philosopher John L. Austin who posited that there was a difference between constative language, which describes the world and can be evaluated as true or false, and performative language, which does something in the world. For Austin, performative language included speech acts such as promising, swearing, betting, and performing a marriage ceremony. For instance, the utterance, “I do”—said under the right circumstances by the right speakers with the right intentions—transforms the utterer from being unmarried to being married. Austin posited a number of felicity conditions that must be met in order for such utterances to function performatively. Other scholars have taken up these basic insights to explore the various ways in which language can do things in the world. Most notably, Judith Butler developed the concept of performativity to describe how gender is constructed in the 1990s. Butler argued that gender is an ongoing and socially constructed process, which proceeds through a continuous series of performative acts, from, for example, the utterance of “It’s a boy!” on through a person’s lifetime. Performativity, then, is the process of subject formation, which creates that which it purports to describe and occurs through linguistic means, as well as via other social practices. Following Butler, the concept of performativity has been richly explored in anthropological studies of gender and sexuality. Scholars of ritual have also used the concept of performative action and performativity very productively, looking at how rituals work performatively to have effects on the world. Other types of performances have been also analyzed from a performative viewpoint. In the late 1990s, anthropologists and other scholars studying economies began to consider economic performativity, or how the practices of economists and other financial experts are not simply descriptive of their subject but also serve to shape it. Not surprisingly, given the concept’s initial conceptualization as linguistic in nature, linguistic anthropologists in particular have found the concept analytically useful. A number of challenges and issues have characterized scholarly debates about performative language and performativity. These include the role of actors’ intentions and issues of agency, the importance of context, the iterability or repeated versus spontaneous nature of performative action, and the effects of social roles and distributions of power across participants.

Foundational Texts

How To Do Things with Words (Austin 1962) is the foundational text on performative language: here Austin introduces and elaborates on the differences between constative or descriptive language and performative language and eventually moves to describe all linguistic acts as belonging to three types: locutionary (language that describes), illocutionary (language that does things in the world), and perlocutionary (language that is the effect of that doing). In other words, performative force, or the ability to “do things with words” was expanded to cover a much broader range of linguistic activity than the discrete speech acts of promising, swearing, betting, etc. Authored by a student of Austin’s, Searle 1969 developed these categories into what has been known as “speech act theory”; Benveniste 1971 similarly expounded upon speech act theory with a focus on efficacy and speaker roles. Butler 1990 and Butler 1993 are key texts in the development of performativity as a social process as related to gender, sex, and sexuality; Butler 1997 theorized the politics of performativity in speech. In a work that is a key text in science and technology studies, Lyotard 1984 argued that doing science includes a degree of performativity.

  • Austin, John L. 1962. How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Introduces the concept of performative as opposed to constative language and laid the foundations of speech act theory. Discusses the locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary functions of language. Felicity conditions and infelicitous failures are both the subject of much theorizing.

  • Benveniste, Emile. 1971. Analytical philosophy and language. In Problems in general linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, 231–238. Coral Gables, FL: Univ. of Miami Press.

    Explores and expands Austin’s concept of performatives to stress the importance of considering performative efficacy and power vis-à-vis participant roles and how particular speech acts are contextualized. For Benveniste, performatives depend on the authority of the speaker and are inherently reflexive in nature.

  • Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

    Butler’s approach to gender builds on the work of Foucault to theorize gender as the product of social activity. Initial discussion of performativity from Austin’s performative speech as it relates to gender, how it functions via iterability (or repetition) and does not rely on the intention of the actor.

  • Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of “sex.” London: Routledge.

    Further elaboration of how gender performativity works through the ongoing process of repeated acts of “doing gender,” which functions to make these actions appear essential or natural. In appearing to be the elaboration of biological sex, the performativity of gender in turn (re)inscribes sex on the body in particular ways.

  • Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.

    Develops the performativity of political discourse, working from various examples of hate speech and other types of public discourse in which power is enacted. Shows that resignification of such speech is always possible, although it occurs within complex historical and social interrelationships.

  • Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Portrays science as a language game, building on Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, which depends on the performativity of language about scientific discovery (people describing it as true make it true), so as to justify its financing.

  • Searle, John. 1969. Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173438

    Fleshes out and elaborates Austin’s work to develop speech act theory, in particular how different types of utterances have different types of relationships to and effects on the world. Discusses how the illocutionary force of speech depends on uttering the right words, in the right way, under the right circumstances.

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